How does meeting with another person, different in culture and religion, enrich me?
Listen! It is a little word used throughout the day by everyone! Umva – (Kinyarwanda) – Listen (English) – Écoute (French) – Sikia (Kiswahili). This word in several languages always expresses a deep desire to be heard, understood, accepted and welcomed such as I am. The beauty of meeting with another person is to experience listening, which is admittedly not easy. I often want to speak, react, explain, discuss and justify; nevertheless, we have to let others speak until they finish. After having studied as much as I have, I am learning to empty myself of my knowledge, and especially my mind, in order to listen to God through others. The word of God to Job constantly rings in my head: “Job, give me your attention, listen well; keep silence: I have more to say” (Jb 33:31).
Who therefore is this God? By listening to another, I realise that “God is greater than our conscience and he knows everything” (1 Jn 3:20). I sometimes have the impression I do not know him at all. A kind of thirst to know him better takes me over: “As a doe longs for running streams, so longs my soul for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, the God of life; when shall I go to see the face of God?” (Ps 42:2-3). In discovering the lives of the men and women of other religious traditions, I am taken by surprise by this God at work in their lives. Who is this God? I lived for three days in the house of Pastor Daniel, a Presbyterian married to Dina; they have three magnificent daughters! In the evening after a meeting replete in words, looks and meals shared, in the silence of the night before sleep, I cannot but relive these moments of such intense encounter. I sigh in a sense of wonder. Peter’s experience becomes mine, “Then Peter addressed them: ‘The truth I have now come to realise’, he said, ‘is that God does not have favourites, but that anybody of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him’” (Ac 10:34-35). Who then is God? The experience of the Prophet Elijah comes to me like a flash. On Mount Horeb, he had an extraordinary experience of the presence of God like “the sound of a gentle breeze. And when Elijah heard this, he covered his face with his cloak…” (1 K 19:12-13). How beautiful! God is present in this intense silence, “the sound of a gentle breeze”, in the life of Reverend Daniel, of El hajj Sudi…
Gentleness of heart! Speaking to others has never been easy. How can we pass on deep personal convictions to others without hurting or frustrating them? How can we rectify prejudices another person holds against us without a fight? There is only one truly efficient way – gentleness of heart. Christ was right. “Happy the gentle: they shall have the earth for their heritage” (Mt 5:4). Every meeting with a person different from me has always been an exercise in “gentleness of heart” and to reach it, I have always the counsel of the apostle Paul in mind, “Finally, brothers, fill your minds with everything that is true, everything that is noble, everything that is good and pure, everything that we love and honour, and everything that can be thought virtuous or worthy of praise” (Ph 4:8).
When Sudi calls me to ask what time I am leaving for the Muslim-Christian seminar, and he would like us to travel together, I can only be amazed! Therefore, we take the bus together, and the journey becomes an experience of listening and of communication. Just as Jesus was amazed at the faith of the Roman centurion (Mt 8:9), so I discover what is true, noble, just, pure and worthy of loving, honouring what is called virtue, whatever is worthy of praise in the lives of these men, women and children of other religious traditions. It leaves me speechless, but my heart is racing. St. Francis was right. “The world of men is an immense battlefield of riches and power. Moreover, too much suffering and atrocities have hidden from them the face of God. We must in no circumstances approach them giving the impression as a new kind of competitor. Among them we need to be peaceable witnesses of the Almighty, men without covetousness or scorn, capable of being their true friends. They expect our friendship, friendship that enables them to experience that they are loved by God and saved in Jesus Christ” (E. Leclerc, Sagesse d’un pauvre, p. 139).
Finally, unlimited compassion! In Rwanda, I spend hours listening to people whose souls are scarred by a history of suffering, violence, war and genocide. It is a pastoral activity of listening and of prayer! I was describing to a Muslim friend how this activity took place. Suddenly, he opened up to me. Taken between the desire to listen to his story of suffering and thinking of referring him to a Sheik, his Muslim spiritual father, I had no time to decide. He was already “opening his heart” to me as though to say, “I was pouring out my soul… all this time I have been speaking from the depth of my grief and my resentment” (1 S 1:15-16). Unlimited compassion! What was I to do? Listen. However, there was more; I was to weep. I was so moved by his story of suffering that my tears followed his. Was it an embarrassment? No! I understood the power of God. “At the sight of her tears, and those of the Jews who followed her, Jesus said in great distress, with a sigh that came straight from the heart…” (Jn 11: 33).
Such is the power of compassion: sighing and becoming distressed in front of the other person’s suffering. The words are no longer important. I did not know what to say. However the story of Hagar and Ishmael came to mind. In the desert, faced with the last sighs of her son, God only asked her one thing: “Come, pick up the boy and hold him safe, for I will make him into a great nation” (Gn 21:18). Water and food would follow. For the time being, only the hand in the hand of the child would give it life. I shall never forget this hand in the hand of this man. The “sound of a gentle breeze” could be heard, “who makes no distinction between men and that in every nation whoever fears and practises justice finds favour with him”. How happy I am to love such a God!
(Sharing Trentaprile 4 (Octobre 2009).)